The history and significance of “third parties” tend to be written off by most Americans. Easily dismissed as “wasted votes” or escape hatches from voting Democrat or Republican, third or minor parties have played a multifaceted role in the American political scene. A brief glance at their history might help Catholic voters about their decisions in the polling booth.
What’s known as the “two party system” emerged in 1796, the year when, according to the Independence Hall Association, candidates ran “as members of organized political parties that held strongly opposed political principles.” Federalist candidate John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson took sharply opposing views toward the Constitution and the future of the Revolution. In his 1796 farewell address, George Washington (who ran for president as an independent) warned that political parties
may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
The Democratic-Republicans evolved into the Democratic Party in the 1830s. And it wasn’t until 1854 that the Republican Party emerged on the main political stage when they opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would allow for the expansion of slavery in new Western states. These two parties have come to dominate US presidential elections since the 1850s (the last non-Democratic/Republican president was Whig candidate Millard Filmore whose term ended in 1853).
Since then, third or “minor” parties have garnered few votes, with exceptions in 1912, 1992, and 1996. In 1912, former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt ran for a third time on the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party ticket winning 27.4 percent of the vote, and Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs won 6 percent. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot ran the most successful third party campaigns in 1992 and 1996, winning 18.7 and 9.2 percent of the vote, respectively.
Some blame candidates like Perot, who drew votes equally from Democrats and Republicans, for “spoiling” the election for one of the major party candidates. But for some third party candidate supporters, this is seen as a useful strategy to pressure Democrats and Republicans to reconsider their platforms. In both years, Bill Clinton won with less than 50% of the vote.
Generally, candidates can either be written in, run independently, or be nominated by party delegates at a national convention. Ballot access laws vary by state. To run as a candidate for a political party, some states, such as New Jersey and New Hampshire, require a certain amount of votes in previous elections. Party candidates who don’t meet the qualifications can either run independently or be written in. Other states, such as Vermont, distinguish between major and minor party candidates, and have different requirements for each. Most states require a minimum amount of elector votes to make it onto the general election ballot. And while most states have few restrictions on candidates being written in, some, such as Colorado, require a candidate to file an affidavit of intent to be considered for the write in.
Some believe that reforms to our electoral system, like ranked choice voting (RCV), would help minimize the barriers faced by third party candidates. Members of nonpartisan electoral reform advocacy group FairVote think the US would be better off with RCV, which is already used for down-ballot elections in some states, because it “allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then uses those rankings to elect candidates who best represent their constituents…Voters can rank as many candidates as they want, without fear that ranking others will hurt the chances of their favorite candidate.” FairVote argues that RCV would promote majority vote, discourage negative campaigning, and provide more choice for voters.
Others point to the fact that a candidate must at least 15% in pre-election polls to participate in presidential debates. Members of Level the Playing Field, a nonprofit group consisting mostly of Green and Libertarian party members, lost a case this past June against the Federal Election Commission in the DC Circuit Court that aimed to challenge the 15% minimum requirement. Judge Raymond Randall wrote in the Court’s opinion that, “There is no legal requirement that the commission make it easier for independent candidates to run for president of the United States.” It is most often the case that third party candidates will debate each other separately from Republican and Democratic candidates.
There are at least 17 presidential candidates running on third party tickets in the 2020 election. Among the better known are the Green Party, which is noted for its socialism and commitment to environmentalism, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Libertarian party, and the centrist Alliance Party. The paleoconservative Constitution Party and more centrist American Solidarity Party (ASP) (whose platform is based on Catholic Social Teaching and aims to model the Christian Democratic parties that emerged in Europe during the 1990s), claim Christianity as central to their platforms, as well as Kanye West’s Birthday Party.
Many fear that “wasting one’s vote” on a third party is a grave mistake in an election as pivotal as this year’s, but others see such a vote as a chance to change the political direction of the country. Albert Thompson, a delegate of the ASP, argues that “the two major parties have orthodoxies which are really barriers to needed conversations about the present and future. Third parties can offer new ideas, real creative solutions to problems.”
“The two major parties,” he continues, “are exhausted and out of ideas. They are only able to cater to the wealthy special interest groups that control them. Third parties are the outlet for new ideas, the kind the duopoly either deliberately shun or frankly are too out of touch to develop. ”
What are Catholics to make of third parties during the 2020 election? First, as Pope Francis reminds us, “the Church is called to form consciences, not replace them.” Simplistic exhortations to vote based on single-issues or to “not waste one’s vote” can deflect from the arduous work of engaging one’s conscience with the teachings of the Church and the present state of affairs in our country. We might also need to be reminded that civic engagement is not exhausted by voting in presidential elections: the Church’s social doctrine calls us to engage in local politics and participate in communal and civic organizations, all of which are at the service of building up the Common Good.
When deciding how or whether to affiliate with political parties, we might find it helpful to consider Fr. Lugi Giussani’s assertion to fully use one’s gift of reason means to account for the “totality of factors in reality.” As Catholics, let’s help each other to engage with those many factors and make choices accordingly.
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